As Zhengzhou pulls hundreds of cars out of a flooded tunnel, frontline rescuers said the actual death toll could be much higher

A few days after China’s Henan province experienced a record-breaking amount of rainfall, which caused the provincial capital Zhengzhou and several other cities to experience serious and life-threatening flooding, rescuers have now towed out more than 200 cars from a flooded tunnel in Zhengzhou.

Water in the tunnel reached 13 meters deep at some point and an unknown amount of cars and individuals were reportedly trapped inside the tunnel. While rescuers have towed out more than 200 cars by Saturday, the actual amount of casualties remain unknown.

Chinese media reported that on July 20, the tunnel was submerged in the flood within five minutes in the torrential rain, causing an unknown number of cars and people to be trapped in it. On Wednesday, rescuers began to use high-powered pumping machines to extract the water from the tunnel, and released the floodwaters into the main road above and water, letting it be guided to the drainage system nearby.

After days of rescue missions, hundreds of cars have been dragged out of the tunnel and they were now temporarily parked by the side of the road. Li Ping, the deputy secretary of the Zhengzhou City Administration, told local media that water in the tunnel is now down to 1.2 to 1.5 meters and there are visually no more cars trapped in the tunnel.

Authorities said they found two corpses in the searching process, but local authorities said they can’t be sure if there are more victims trapped in the tunnel. A frontline rescuer surnamed Zhang said he believes the number of actual deaths will be much higher than the number that officials have revealed, since there are hundreds of cars trapped inside the tunnel.

Apart from the tunnel, other frontline resecuers said several roads in Zhengzhou have collapsed following the flooding disaster, and residents in some highrise buildings nearby were evacuated.

Wang, another frontline rescuer, said since the underground drainage constructions in several parts of Zhengzhou have deficits, the situation has caused some roads to collapse following the disaster. “The improvements that the government promises to make are all superficial, as we can see many roads across Zhengzhou have collapsed following the flooding,” he said.

A natural disaster or a man-made disaster?

Zhang describes the life-threatening flood to be both a natural disaster and a man-made disaster. He said on Tuesday when Zhengzhou was experiencing the worst torrential rain, one of his friends was trapped in the flooded subway car with other passengers. Water reached the height of their shoulders as images show and they waited three hours in the submerged train for rescuers to finally arrive at the scene.

“While no one died in the train where he’s at, they needed to rely on themselves to get rescued,” he said. “Even though there was basically equipment that they could use to break the window and escape from the flooded train, the glass window was too sturdy that they couldn’t use the emergency hammer or fire distinguisher to break the window.”

After rescuers arrived at the scene, they also couldn’t use their professional equipment to break the window. Eventually, they were forced to make a hole on the top of the train and pull trapped passengers out of the flooded train. “The last group of passengers only got out of the flooded car after midnight,” Zhang said, contradicting the official media’s claim that all passengers were released by 9 pm on Tuesday night.

Additionally, the other frontline rescuer Wang said the current party secretary in Zhengzhou has been conducting construction on major roads in the city by adding floral decorations in the middle of the road. However, the construction reportedly damaged many underground drainage pipes along these roads, causing the system to fail to release the water properly during the torrential rain.

Wang said while he expects the local government to start paying close attention to the prevention of floods in the future, he doesn’t expect other situations to improve. “This means that even if the same disaster won’t happen again in Zhengzhou, it could still happen in other parts of China,” he said.

This piece first appeared in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.